A serious-looking Don Cheadle stared out from one of the 20 covers of the July issue of Vanity Fair, which is devoted to the plight of the African continent.
It is a subject close to the heart of Cheadle, who won the respect of millions of filmgoers as Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager who saved hundreds of Tutsi refugees from slaughter by Hutu militants in “Hotel Rwanda.” More recently, Cheadle was in Darfur in Sudan to make “An Indifferent World,” a documentary about the ongoing genocide - the United Nations prefers “humanitarian crisis” - scheduled for release in October.
Talk to Me
Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taraji P. Henson, Cedric The Entertainer, Mike Epps, Martin Sheen
(Focus Features; US theatrical: 13 Jul 2007 (Limited release); 2007)
“You do what you are able to do,” says Cheadle. “That’s my responsibility as a human. But as an actor, you know, I don’t always want to represent all that is good and noble. Sometimes you just want to, you know, get down a little bit.”
Cheadle does some serious getting down in “Talk to Me,” opening nationwide July 20. Turned out in flamboyant outfits occasionally topped by feathered hats that make Cheadle’s “Boogie Nights” wardrobe look sedate, Cheadle plays Ralph Waldo (Petey) Greene, a real-life ex-con and street hustler. In the mid-‘60s, Greene hustled his way into a job as the morning DJ on WOL-AM in Washington, D.C., a rhythm and blues station with a large base of African-American listeners. The irreverent - to say the least - Greene quickly became a voice for the black community and a local media superstar - even though he was barely known outside his hometown.
“I had never heard of the guy,” says the usually press-shy Cheadle. As executive producer of “Talk to Me,” he felt a stronger commitment than usual to “get the word out.”
“But when I started to read about him, I thought: Oh yeah, this could be interesting. To me, he represented a whole lot of forgotten or half-forgotten guys who played a big role in the sea change of African-American culture in that period. The guy walks out of jail and into a kind of celebritydom that he’s not ready for, and that’s interesting. But he can’t lose what he was, and he doesn’t want to, you know?
“The movie’s set in the `60s and `70s, but the argument continues today in black communities, you know? If you work the traditional routes to success - education, straight job, straight clothes - does that somehow make you a sellout? And if you fight back against the prevailing standards that contribute to the racial injustice in this country, does that make you a troublemaker or a revolutionary?”
The movie’s very funny, he says, but it has some serious things on its mind. “I think it has a lot to say not just to the black community, but to the white community as well. I hate it when any movies gets labeled a `black’ movie or an `urban’ movie because that’s a barrier right there. Movies are in color, but they shouldn’t have a color.”
Cheadle became interested in “Talk to Me” a few years ago when he learned about Greene - credited with helping to end the riot in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 - from Ted Demme, a producer and director who died in 2002. Cheadle helped drive the product to the screen, hooking up with director Kasi Lemmons.
Cheadle’s co stars are Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Dewey Hughes, the radio exec credited with discovering Petey, and Taraji P. Henson of “Hustle & Flow,” who plays Petey’s outspoken girlfriend. Martin Sheen, Cedric the Entertainer and Mike Epps have smaller roles.
Cheadle is preparing to take on a biography of jazz legend Miles Davis. He will star in the movie and hopes to begin filming next year.
“He’s an incredibly fascinating character, a genius that not only contributed to the evolution of jazz but to all music,” says Cheadle, who has acquired rights to Davis’ so-called autobiography, in which the trumpeter’s recollections were curiously close to those in biographies by others.
“I think he couldn’t be that bothered writing about his life. He was too busy still living it.”